In the wake of the 9.0 Mw earthquake that took place off the coast of Japan and its associated tsunami, an area that has caught the attention of the news media, particularly in the West has been the condition of the reactors at the Fuskushima I Nuclear Power Plant. Because of the public sensitivity and ignorance with regard to nuclear issues, a point well-illustrated by the fact that MRI machines are so-named despite employing essentially the same technology as nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers, the reporting of the story has generated a sense of hysteria among the public, who are frightened by talk of explosions and meltdown and by pictures of technicians in protective suits scanning locals in Fukushima province for radiation exposure.
In the wake of this, I want to point out a few sources that take a sober look at the problem. The first is from Mutant Frog Travelogue, which presents the situation with the necessary caveats to those currently in Japan. The second is the MIT NSE Nuclear Information Hub, which provides periodic updates as well as background on the mechanics. The third is the following video conversation between science journalist John Horgan and nuclear engineer Rod Adams:
Vodpod videos no longer available.
To be fair, Adam’s is an adamant pro-nuclear advocate, so his instinct to downplay the dangers of this incident may be overly strong, but his background gives him a sense of proportion that is sorely lacking in many of the reporters and consumers of information that have clamored around this story.
I do wish the best to the people of Japan as they begin the long process of rebuilding their country and reestablishing normality, and I do think that this is a grave and serious matter that deserves the attention of the relevant authorities and that necessary precautions should and are being taken. However, it seems clear to me that most of the attitudes concerning the Fukushima I plant have bordered on hysteria, including ridiculous moves by some foreign governments and one of the responsibilities of both providers and consumers of information is to obtain a proper context for what is happening and that is happening it too few places.
Update: Steve Hsu points to an interview with the UK government’s Chief Scientific Officer John Beddington on the website of the British embassy in Tokyo. Hsu highlights the following passage regarding what a meltdown would mean:
If the Japanese fail to keep the reactors cool and fail to keep the pressure in the containment vessels at an appropriate level, you can get this, you know, the dramatic word “meltdown.” But what does that actually mean? What a meltdown involves is the basic reactor core melts, and as it melts, nuclear material will fall through to the floor of the container. There it will react with concrete and other materials that is likely.
Remember this is the reasonable worst case, we don’t think anything worse is going to happen. In this reasonable worst case you get an explosion. You get some radioactive material going up to about 500 meters up into the air. Now, that’s really serious, but it’s serious again for the local area. It’s not serious for elsewhere, even if you get a combination of that explosion it would only have nuclear material going in to the air up to about 500 meters.
If you then couple that with the worst possible weather situation, i.e. prevailing weather taking radioactive material in the direction of Greater Tokyo and you had maybe rainfall which would bring the radioactive material down, do we have a problem? The answer is unequivocally no. Absolutely no issue.
The problems are within 30 km of the reactor. And to give you a flavor for that, when Chernobyl had a massive fire at the graphite core, material was going up not just 500 meters but to 30,000 feet; it was lasting not for the odd hour or so but lasted months, and that was putting nuclear radioactive material up into the upper atmosphere for a very long period of time. But even in the case of Chernobyl, the exclusion zone that they had was about 30 kilometers. And in that exclusion zone, outside that, there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate people had problems from the radiation.
The problems with Chernobyl were people were continuing to drink the water, continuing to eat vegetables and so on and that was where the problems came from. That’s not going to be the case here. So what I would really reemphasize is that this is very problematic for the area and the immediate vicinity and one has to have concerns for the people working there. Beyond that 20 or 30 kilometers, it’s really not an issue for health.
Again, this is very serious, but a sense of proportion is warranted here.